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Friday, April 15, 2016

Wright's Usonian Houses

Reisley House, 1951, Pleasantville, New York, Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright
Over the past several years it has been my privilege to have toured several of the major masterpieces of the American Architectural genius, Frank Lloyd Wright. At the top of my list was, of course, Fallingwater, in southwestern Pennsyl-vania. In more recent years I've add to that list the Robie House in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago as well as both Taliesin East in Wisconsin and Taliesin West near Scottsdale, Arizona. As fas-cinating as these have been, they've only provided insight into the highlights of the man's career. To really probe beneath the surface of Wright's architectural theories and philosophy, one must explore Wright's minor masterpieces, his sixty single-storey middle-class dwellings built between 1937 and his death in 1959. He called them Usonian houses. Sources differ as to exactly how many of these homes Wright designed himself and how many plans he merely directed and approved, but it's safe to say that, taken together, they have had as great, or greater, impact upon present-day architectural theory as anything Wright has ever wrought.

A Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house in North Madison, Ohio
Usonia was a word by which Wright to refer to his vision for the future American landscape including urban planning as well as architectural structures. Wright preferred the use of Usonian in place of American to describe a landscape free of all preceding architectural conventions. The homes would be fairly small, single-story dwellings without a garage or even much in the way of storage options. The majority of the designs were L-shaped so as to compliment a garden terrace on unusually shaped lots. They incorporated passive solar heating and natural cooling through the use of flat roofs and large, cantilevered overhangs, along with natural lighting from high windows near the ceiling line, and radiant-floor heating. These design elements were marked departures from homes being built at the time, but it's not hard to see how the influences of Usonian houses have work their way into many homes designed and built today.

Keep it simple, beauty will follow.
Paradoxically, as forward-looking and practical as Wright's Usonian houses were, they have not had a great impact upon the domestic architecture we see sprouting upon oversized lots along the pristine streets of suburbia today. Wright’s Usonian houses were based on simplified designs, intended to maximize the living space that could be achieved with a small building footprint. Taking key elements from the sprawling prairie home style that made him famous, then making them more economical–-both financially and in their use of space–-Wright’s Usonian houses are known for their use of natural materials that carry from the interior to the exterior walls. These design mainstays ensured that the homes would be appreciated just as much for their functionality as their beauty. In 1936, when the U.S. was in the depths of the Great Depression, Wright's Usonian houses were designed to control costs. They had no attics, no basements, and little ornamentation. They were very much in tune with the prevailing art theory that "less is more." Unfortunately, due to "creeping affluence," those Americans who can afford to build new homes tend to subscribe to the opposite theory, "more is never enough." The result is the so-called "McMansions" (below) which we know all to well today.

The McMansion--the antithesis of Wright's Usonian houses.
Even in his day, Wright realized that the way Americans live had changed. Sadly, domestic architecture had not--and in large part still hasn’t. By the 1930s, few people had live-in servants. They did not dine formally. They loved their cars; and above all, they valued their privacy amid increasingly overpopulated neighborhoods. Therefore, Wright’s Usonian homes had no formal dining room, a carport replaced the garage, the kitchens were compact and flowed into the other living spaces, and his house generally turned away from the street, their floor-to-ceiling windows facing the backyard. If Wright were to visit one of our developments with their "McMansions" today, he would probably burn them down. He would disparage the ugly two-car garages sticking out like buck teeth, and the fake, neo-colonial ornaments trying to remind us of southern plantations. That's not to say Wright perfectly predicted modern lifestyles of today. His kitchens (always marked "work space") failed to foresee food preparation becoming a family social event, even if it now centers around he ubiquitous microwave oven rather than the modern-day "cook-top." Wright also failed to foresee the rise of the elegant, Texas-sized bathroom/lounge/dressing room that Americans insist upon making an integral part of their domestic lifestyle. Nonetheless, Wright's Usonian houses largely did away with oversized "picture" windows that face the street and invited people to cover them for privacy, thus closing out light in the process and turning the entire house into something of a hermetically sealed dungeon. The Usonian houses weren’t perfect, but as anyone who has ever lived in one and will tell you, they were (and are) surprisingly efficient, even if you didn’t have an attic in which hide the Christmas decorations.

The Jacobs House, 1936, Madison, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright

The Usonian houses were stick-built, but there were prefabricated elements and other non-traditional construction techniques. In the Jacobs house (above), Wright pioneered three then-revolutionary construction techniques—board and batten walls, a planning grid (visible), and radiant under-floor heating. The simple board and batten walls eliminated a lot of costly and time-consuming finishing work—while still giving the house some insulation and aesthetic appeal. The grid system standardized measurements and made the workmen’s job easier. The under-floor heat served to abolished radiators that were costly and took up valuable space. The Jacobs House would be about $5,500 in 1936/37 or about $86,000 in todays dollars.

Melvin Maxwell Smith builds his dream house. Wright called it his "Little Gem."
Around 1949, Melvin Maxwell Smith and his wife decided they wanted to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright home. Smith and his wife were Detroit school teachers living on a budget of about $280 a month at the time. They visited Wright at Taliesin East (Wisconsin) where they met and discussed their needs and limited resources. Imagine you’re a famous architect. You’re known as an architect for the rich or well-to-do, and notorious for running over-budget as well as being difficult to deal with. What would you say when a young couple of very modest means approached you and asked you to design a house for the “average” person? If you were Frank Lloyd Wright you’d say…GREAT! During the final third of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career, he devoted a large portion of his output to designing homes for average people, with the goal of keeping the entire cost of the house (including furnishings) to under $5,000 (excluding the price of the land). That would be about $100,000 in today’s economy. On Wright's advice, Melvin Smith decided to act as his own general contractor, so that he could save money and maintain the quality standards he expected. He recruited skilled workers who wanted to work on a home designed by Wright so much that they would accept lower pay than usual. Suppliers of building materials also provided some 14,000 board feet of red tidewater cypress lumber at discounted prices because of their wish to be involved with a Wright project. Shopping center developer, Alfred Taubman, provided all of the windows at a deep discount because he considered the house a "fantastic structure." The Smiths moved into their new home (above) in May of 1950. One year later, they received a housewarming gift from a friend, a maple dining table with eight maple chairs, two coffee tables and six hassocks, all designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In design, Wright's Usonian houses could be considered fifty to a hundred years ahead of their time.
Today, a few of Wright's Usonian houses are open to the public for tours, though most are still being lived in by private individuals. If you'd like to try life in a Usonian, a surprising number come on the market each year. However, just the mere mention of Wright having had a hand in their design often pushes the asking price well into the seven-figure range. If the low six-figures is more in your speed, then expect to spend that much more to update and restore such real estate collectors' items. (Those flat roofs are always needing work.) In Rockford, Illinois, for instance, the Laurent House (above) is on the market for between $700,000 and $900,000. Built between 1949 and 1952, the house was described by Wright as a 'little gem." It was commissioned and built for Kenneth Laurent, a World War II veteran, injured in battle. His wheelchair disability was considered in the design of the house, which contained wide, rounded hallways and low fixtures. The sale will help Laurent and his wife to move to an assisted living facility. The six-room Usonian sits on 1.2 acres of thickly-wooded land. The property features three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and flowing, curved spaces, perfect for family living. The house has of a custom-made interior, with several valuable masterpieces including Wright-designed furniture, ironwork, and lighting, all included in the sale. This is a one-of-a-kind residence and a rare opportunity to purchase a piece of design history. No, I'm not a real estate agent, I just sound like one sometimes.

Though the Usonian houses constitute a series, designed over several decades, they are not Levitt-like "cookie cutter" plans. Though similar in concept and philosophy, each is different.
Brandes House, 1952,  Sammamish, Washington, Frank Lloyd Wright

Zimmerman House, 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright,
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester,
New Hampshire 



  1. This is an excellent collection of Usonian homes. The building systems are so apparent in these homes , they are raw refined and tectonic.

  2. Robert--
    Yes. Your comment is especially appropriate with regard to the early designs and the smaller homes. Some of the later, larger homes are not so apparent in this regard. As to the larger homes, Wright seems to have been able to disguise these features somewhat. I'm not certain, but he may have grown cognizant of a certain "sameness" developing as to their appearance, desiring that each of the later ones have a more unique look.